The War on the Rocks 2014 Holiday Reading List

December 16, 2014

The holiday season is once more upon us, which means it’s time for the War on the Rocks 2014 Holiday Reading List!  Looking for a gift for that hard-to-buy-for person?  We’ve got you covered.  Need something to read on your days off from work?  Look no further.  These recommendations from WOTR contributors are all you’ll need.


John Amble (@JohnAmble):

Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood, by Justin Marozzi. This biography of a city is a compelling read simply by virtue of Baghdad’s tumultuous history. But given the current context, the city’s history of repeated sieges, its significance within the Islamic world, and its centuries-long role as the seat of the Abbasid caliphate makes the well-researched and detailed narrative a particularly timely offering.

America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, by Hugh Wilford. Often (and often unfairly) accused of a lack of cultural understanding, this volume examines the unique role that Middle East experts played during the formative years of modern American intelligence. Wilford overlays biographical sketches of some of these figures on a historical look at some of the most important periods in the modern Middle East. Perhaps most interestingly, the focus on particular individuals offers a window into an era when a world of nepotistic, political aristocracy and the meritocratic individualism that America holds so dear today met in full force.

BJ Armstrong (@WWATMD):

Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control, by J.C. Wylie. First published in 1967, and after years out of print, The Naval Institute Press re-issued this classic work on military strategy this year. Part of the value of this book is its approachable length and insights that are presented so simply and clearly that they suddenly appear obvious. Also included in the book are a great introduction by historian John Hattendorf and several Proceedings articles about naval strategy written by Admiral Wylie. This book belongs on the shelf next to Clausewitz, Mahan, and Corbett.

Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings, by Craig Symonds. Much of the 70th anniversary recognition of the D-Day landings focused on the hard fought battles once Allied forces were on the beach. Symonds, one of our country’s leading naval historians and a masterful storyteller, has written a book that brings new insight to the untold story of the naval elements of the landing. In modern discussions of A2AD and Joint Operational Access this fantastic book helps illuminate the complexity of amphibious operations and the challenges these concepts must deal with.

Claude Berube (@cgberube):

Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, The Invisible Industry that Puts Clothes on your Back, Gas in your Car, and Food on your Plate, by Rose George. The lengthy sub-title says it all. The value of this work is that the author lived aboard a modern container ship for several months to tell the story about the lifeblood of many nations.

Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II, by Vicki Constantine Coke. This book is mostly a biography of James “Elephant Bill” Williams who, after the Great War, finds two decades of solace in Burma working with a teak company and elephants and how his knowledge served him during the Second World War. The story about the elephants is cause enough to buy this book but for readers of War on the Rocks, there is value in understanding the experiences of the vast ex-pat communities throughout the world before a state conducts military operations.

Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic, by Charles N. Edel. Written by a Naval War College professor, this book explores the career and thoughts of one of the most significant antebellum politicians as the young American republic evolved.

John Collins:

If our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said he never had time to study military history it would be as mindless as if the U.S. Surgeon General said he never had time to study anatomy or do any dissection. I therefore nominate three Golden Oldies, plus my article entitled “How Military Strategists Should Study History,” Military Review, August 1983

Makers of Modern Strategy: Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed by Peter Paret

The Lessons of History, by Will and Ariel Durant

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, by Paul Kennedy

Patrick M. Cronin (@PMCroninCNAS):

The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia, by Bill Hayton. My colleague Robert Kaplan’s outstanding book, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, is a wonderful read and focused on lessons for U.S. policy.  But equally important, and even more focused on the overlapping historical disputes of the South China Sea, Bill Hayton writes a thoroughly engrossing and illuminating volume that should also be on the list of anyone curious about this major flashpoint in Asia.

A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire, by Geoffrey Wawro. What Henry Kissinger does for the Westphalian concept of order, Geoffrey Wawro does for the last decades of the Hapsburg dynasty.  As my Austrian friends say, there is no shortage of magnificent venues in Vienna because the capital of a nation of 8 million people used to be at the center of one of Europe’s great empires.

Adam Elkus (@Aelkus):

Introduction to AI Roboticsby Robin Murphy. Robotics is not just an engineering challenge, it is also an intellectual question about the nature of how intelligence represents and acts in a complex world. Murphy’s textbook covers the three major paradigms of AI robotic architecture design and the biological and psychological theory behind them. If you are trying to win the Lawfare drone competition, this deserves to be on your bookshelf.

The SOAR Cognitive Architecture, by John E. Laird. Designed in the 1980s, the cognitive architecture SOAR is one of the first real attempts to build a system capable of not only replicating human performance, but also the way that we reason when solving problems. SOAR also has also been applied to a wide range of training, wargaming, simulation, and modeling efforts in DoD. But, in keeping with WOTR’s requirements, it can also fetch you drinks from the fridge too.

Characteristics of Games, George Skaff Elias, Richard Garfield, and Robert Gutschera. I’ve played games as long as I’ve been alive, and much of my research interests have to do with games and their theory. Yet I’ve never seen a book quite as insightful as this. Elias, Garfield, and Gutschera talk from a structural, psychological, cultural, and mathematical perspective about the nature of games and how we play them. Reading it probably won’t help you beat Polt, but at least you’ll feel that much wiser.

Janice Elmore:

A Government of Wolves: the Emerging American Police State, by John Whitehead. In a well-researched book, Whitehead paints a grim picture of the decline of our constitutional guarantees and what he labels as the emerging police state in America.

Water, Peace, and War:  Confronting the Global Water Crisis, by Brahma Chellany. A non-technical and sobering look at the global state of water resource, that Chellany calls our most under-appreciated resource.  He presents ideas for mitigating the crisis, emphasizing that future wars may well be determined by water.

Ryan Evans (@EvansRyan202):

The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, by Eugene Rogan. With the centenary of the start of World War I, much attention has been fixed on the Great War, but mostly on the trenches of Europe. Rogan has written an excellent and accessible popular history of World War I in the Middle East bringing to life combatants from across the region, as well as colonial subjects brought into the fight by the French and British especially. The tumult in today’s Middle East are properly seen as echoes of the great quake that was the Great War.

A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962, by Alistair Horne. This masterful history of France’s dirtiest colonial war is a must read, particularly in light of the torture debate, rekindled by the release of the report on the CIA’s interrogation practices by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

The Good War: Why We Couldn’t Win the War or the Peace in Afghanistan, by Jack Fairweather. This is one of the most comprehensive and well-assembled book on how the United States and its allies got Afghanistan wrong. While our men and women serving in uniform toiled at great personal cost on the tactical level during this war, they have been consistently failed by our political leaders and institutions of state, none of which have covered themselves in glory in the Hindu Kush.

Brian Fishman (@BrianFishman):

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. Because everyone needs some inspiration and the movie may be terrible.

No Good Men Among the Living, by Anand Gopal. Because his sources are unbelievable, the writing is great, and we have an obligation to face our mistakes.

Lawrence Freedman (@LDavF):

Here are three very different approaches to military history.

July Crisis: The World’s Descent into War, Summer 1914, by Thomas Otte. This is one of my favorites from an outstanding crop of new books on the First World War. It is in the established tradition of diplomatic history, using the archives skillfully to illuminate the chaotic decision-making of the crisis that led to war.

Torpedo: Inventing the Military-Industrial Complex in the United States and Great Britain, by Katherine C. Epstein. I appreciate books that dig deep into the practical levels of policy-making, showing how force structures emerge from the complex interactions between engineers, bureaucrats and military officers. Epstein does this exceptionally well in this book. She shows how the tradeoffs between accuracy range affected torpedo development, in the process leading to new types of relationship between the military and industry.

The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War, by Mark Smith. Read this book for an original methodology that encourages readers to consider the influence of the confusions of battle, the noise of shells, and the stench of death. Smith describes some of the key encounters of the civil war, including the Battle of Bull Run and Gettysburg, in terms of assaults on the senses and shows how that affected outcomes.​

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross (@DaveedGR):

When Counterinsurgency Wins, by Ahmed S. Hashim. The author identifies Sri Lanka’s defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as “the first counterinsurgency victory of the twenty-first century” — although it has been a highly controversial victory. Many lessons applicable to other conflicts can be gleaned from this thoroughly researched volume.

Decoding al-Qaeda’s Strategy, by Michael W.S. Ryan. A detailed examination of al-Qaeda’s strategic thinking. Particularly worthwhile now, as the evidence is beginning to show that al-Qaeda is strategically outmaneuvering its major jihadist competitor, the Islamic State.

The Terrorist’s Dilemma, by Jacob Shapiro. A couple of contributors mentioned Shapiro’s book in last year’s list. If you haven’t read it yet, The Terrorist’s Dilemma is an essential volume, examining how these groups’ need for secrecy in the face of adversaries determined to kill or capture them creates severe management difficulties.

Robert L. Goldich:

Soldier in the Sinai: A General’s View of the Yom Kippur War, by Emanuel Sakal. The title is misleading—he was a battalion commander in the Yom Kippur War, but he rose to the grade of major general in the IDF (significant note: the book is dedicated to his older son, KIA in Lebanon in 1986).  A ruthless examination of the politics of command, and command decisions, during the crucial first week to ten days of the war in the Sinai, when the IDF was initially defeated and had to fight hard to come back and win.  Sakal is generous with both the rose and the thorn.  Israel is a small place and the IDF career force just as small, and he knows all of these men, so it took considerable moral courage to write this book.

Poetry and Myths of the Great War: How Poets Altered Our Perception of History, by Martin Stephen. Analyzes how the poetry of a microscopic proportion of the total number of officers who served on the Western Front conveyed the oh-the-horror-of-it-all, lions-led-by-donkeys image of the British effort on the Western Front to the public at large, and how utterly wrong that image was, and remains.  If you’re strapped for bookshelf space, pitch Adam Hochschild’s ghastly, grossly inaccurate, totally presentist To End All Wars into the nearest wastebasket to make room for this book.

Clausewitz: His Life and Work, by Donald Stoker.  A great examination of how CvC’s intellectual output (not confined to On War) derived from his experiences in the Wars of the French Revolution and Empire, starting with his entrance into the Prussian Army as a 12-year-old (!) cadet in 1792, right through Waterloo.  The book shows how Clausewitz, in addition to being the brilliant theoreticians that he was, was a combat-experienced, wounded-in-action, thoroughgoing infantry officer to his fingertips.  In particular, the book points out that in pre-industrial wars, “staff officers” stood on horseback next to the generals they served, and were just as vulnerable to artillery and musket fire as were the infantry, cavalry, and artillery — CvC’s head wound came from a bayonet.

Robert Haddick:

Here are two book-length studies from RAND, both analyzing executive decision-making processes, organizational behavior during crisis response, and escalation management (and mismanagement). Best of all, both are priced to sell – you can download the ebooks in various formats for free.

Blinders, Blunders, and Wars: What America and China Can Learn, by David C. Gompert. The authors examine twelve case studies from the past two centuries of leaders deciding to go to war (or not), and draw conclusion about how today’s leaders can improve the quality of their decision-making processes.

Dangerous Thresholds: Managing Escalation in the 21st Century, by Forrest E. Morgan. The authors analyze Chinese writings on escalation management. They also discuss escalation factors relating to regional nuclear powers, irregular warfare, and stability operations.

T.X. Hammes:

The South China Sea:  The Struggle for Power in Asia, by Bill Hayton.  Fascinating history of the South China Sea provides critical background for understanding today’s disputes.

Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy, by Barry R. Posen.  You may disagree with his strategy (and I do) but Posen provides a coherent, comprehensive argument that is a major addition to the strategic dialogue.

Admiral John C. Harvey (ret):

The Second Nuclear Age, by Paul Bracken. As much as we seem to want to “move on” from acknowledging the role our nuclear arsenal plays in our national security strategy, we need to continue to think about nuclear deterrence. What does deterrence mean to us in 2015? And, just as important, what does it mean to others?  The last of Bracken’s lessons-learned from his discussion of the first nuclear age is the importance of thinking about the unthinkable.  With the continued development of China’s strategic nuclear forces, Russia’s modernization of their nuclear forces, the increasing likelihood of a nuclear-armed Iran in the midst of the growing conflicts and continued turbulence in the Middle East, the on-going nuclear stand-off between India and Pakistan, the ability of North Korea to use its small nuclear arsenal to extort the food and oil required to keep the regime in power and the continued deterioration of the US’ nuclear weapons complex, it would appear that we still need to be doing some very hard thinking about some very unthinkable things.

Red Star Over the Pacific, by James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara. While the rapid development of China’s overall military capabilities over the past 10-15 years is extraordinary in its own right, it is the rapid build-up of all aspects of Chinese seapower that has fundamentally altered the strategic balance in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. This has profound implications for the strategic choices now facing the United States, at a time when our nation’s ability to make those choices has never been so impaired. How to think about where this extraordinary investment in seapower in all its forms will take China is the subject of this remarkable book. Holmes and Yoshihara develop a thesis of how China might exercise its rapidly growing seapower with a goal of commanding the sea “with Chinese characteristics” and that this unique view of command of the sea – in peacetime and in conflict – has profound implications far beyond the eventual fate of Taiwan.

Matthew Hipple (@AmericaHipple):

Station Chief Congo, by Lawrence Devlin. Truly stranger than fiction: Great Power and African tribal politics mix for a CIA agent sometimes just trying to survive a vibrant and dangerous frontier outpost of the Cold War.

War Dog: Fighting Other People’s Wars, by AJ Venter. Also stranger than fiction: A massive tome of personal, digestible vignettes on soldiers of fortune by an inveterate war correspondent.

Frank Hoffman:

Strategy in Asia: The Past, Present, and Future of Regional Security, Tom Mahnken and Dan Blumenthal. This book has a great set of chapters on the most important region to U.S. interests, one for each day of Christmas.

Napoleon: A Life, by Andrew Roberts. It is hard to find something new on the Great Man who laid waste to much of Europe for two decades, but Roberts is a great story teller.

Successful Strategies, by Wick Murray. Murray suggests that good strategy is all too rare.  Given our strategic shortfalls in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, I would have to agree and suggest that the NSC staff all get a copy under their tree.

David Kasten:

The Reconstruction of Patriotism: Education for Civic Consciousness, by Morris Janowitz. Given the current state of affairs in America, this 1983 work is a great read on civics: the individuals’ rights and, more importantly, their obligations. Pairs well with Sierra Nevada, Celebration Pale Ale.

The Russian View of US Strategy: It’s Past, It’s Future, by Jonathan and Kathleen Lockwood. Russia’s actions over the past six months was foreshadowed in this 1993 work. Pairs nicely with a Moscow Mule, of course.

Rogue Male, by Geoffrey Household. Written in 1939, this is one of the classic thrillers of the 20th century. A perfect read, enjoyed best in front of a fire place on a cold winters night with a bit of Redbreast, Irish whiskey.

Lauren Katzenberg (@LKatzenberg):

The Reaper, by Nicholas Irving. Inside look at the life of a Ranger sniper that offers rare insight into the special ops combat missions of the 75th Ranger Regiment, as well as offers a thoughtful take on what it means to be an operations sniper.

Sean Kay:

Rocking the Wall:  Bruce Springsteen – The Untold Story of a Concert in East Berlin that Changed the World, by Erik Kirschbaum. I recommend this book because 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we are still finding out new facts and details about the events that led to the end of the Cold War.  This book reminds us that there is much more to power than military force – and thus that we might question our priorities in terms of what is most effective, and what is often not, in advancing international goals.  When Springsteen sang “Born in the U.S.A.” at that 1988 concert in East Berlin, the young people there knew all the words – they had been liberated in their own minds long before that wall came down.  Artists gave voice to a sense of freedom in the world for a generation.  East Germans didn’t need rock stars to tell them they had a bad deal – but it sure helped amplify the demand for change.

In His Own Words, by Pete Seeger. Something is amiss when musical artists have more questions to raise, it often seems, about matters of war, than America’s own Congress.  Artists have given voice to those in the world who challenge assumptions, but that is generally not welcome in Washington.  And, these artists have also been consistently proven right – from Vietnam to Iraq.  Pete Seeger stood up to warn us that we had gotten Waist Deep in the Big Muddy – about Vietnam.  He was attacked and marginalized for that at the time, but in true form of patriotism he stood up…and he was right.  In November 2014, Bruce Springsteen sang the John Fogerty song “Fortunate Son” at the Mall in Washington, D.C. – and was attacked for doing that.  The real story though was why was it that an artist raised questions about war, while Congress stood silent?  Seeger, who passed away earlier this year, reminded America of its true calling and why its values are so appealing to the world.  If we cannot expect Congress to uphold those fundamental values on war, let us turn to Pete, and ask again, “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?” and read his own words as a caution – and celebration of the best of America.

Colonel Bob Killebrew (USA ret):

Marlborough’s America, by Stephen Webb.  England’s greatest general against Louis XIV; France is turned back from utterly dominating Europe when Marlborough wins decisive battles at Blenheim and Ramillies.  Marlborough reorganizes the government of the colonies — hence every colony gets a “Royal Governor” who is one of his battlefield-tested generals (Spotswood, for example, in Virginia) that ultimately contributes to the American Revolution, and the strategic struggle in England over a “continental” and “imperialist” outlook versus a “maritime” and “mercantilist” orientation.  Fascinating.

Revolutionary Summer, by Joseph Ellis.  The eventful summer of 1776; Washington’s hair-breath escape from New York even as the Continental Congress is debating independence.  The British strategy for winning the war and the tensions among His Majesty’s government and the high command.  A superb book by the author of Founding Brothers.

Illicit, by Moises Naim. This book has been out for some time, but anyone who thinks of themselves as a terrorism expert has got to read this book.  The bridge between terrorism and crime that led to Killebrew’s law — “Not every criminal is a terrorist but every terrorist is a criminal” came from Naim’s book.  Come to think of it, anything he writes is worthwhile.

The Invention of Peace, by Sir Michael Howard.  This is another one that’s been out for awhile, but deserves rereading. In this age when war and terrorism seem to be exploding outside national boundaries, it’s fascinating to read this great historian propose that “peace” only became possible because States grew strong enough to control violence.  Perhaps a perspective on our times.

John T. Kuehn:

Why We Lost, by Daniel Bolger. He is probably the brightest and best educated general in the Army today, both active and retired. He has a spotless record as an officer, despite his very honest mea culpas about Iraq and Afghanistan in this brutally honest memoir.  When the best you have writes these sorts of things, then we should listen.  He was (and possibly is) a prophet. He predicted just what happened to the U.S. military in his 1991 article as a major in “Ghosts of Omdurman (pdf)” We ignore his words at our peril.

Empire, Technology, and Sea power: Royal Navy in the age of Palmerston, by Howard J. Fuller. The author is criticizing the traditional take on the Royal Navy of the mid 19th century as a dominant force that was the key to Britain’s power. In other words he is criticizing, via a very detailed look at the policies and actions during the Palmerston age of empire, the existing triumphant narrative about sea power.  As always, these things are more complicated and Fuller’s revisionist work find continental matters and diplomacy, along with economic globalization, equally, if not more, important.

Baudolino, by Umberto Eco. It is a novel full of philosophy, the meaning of life, questions about how human narratives (history) are made, and the existence of God.  All this hanging off of a rather rousting story of an expert liar in the employ of Emperor Frederich Barbarossa.  The premise is the liar (Baudolino) recounting his “big lies” amid the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade to a high-ranking Byzantine bureaucrat whom he saves.  Black humor and philosophy at their best and most thought-provoking.

Michael Kugelman (@MichaelKugelman):

No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal. So much Afghanistan-related commentary comes from outside of Afghanistan, and particularly from scaremongering armchair experts or public officials who prefer to sugarcoat. I want to know what Afghans themselves are thinking—and Gopal (who isn’t Afghan but has done some of the most impressive journalism in Afghanistan I’ve ever seen) promises to tell us, with unflinching honesty.

2014: The Election That Changed India, by Rajdeep Sardesi. Narendra Modi is one of the world’s most consequential new national leaders, yet we really know little about him. This book, authored by one of India’s top journalists, takes us inside Modi’s election campaign and tells us a whole lot about him.

Thomas F. Lynch III:

Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War, by Christine Fair. A provocative but historically justified look at the security narrative scribed and fiercely protected by the Pakistan military since its 1947 inception.  Fair asks why the military-led security consistently weaken Pakistan’s posture and jeopardize its very survival without any apparent alteration in approach?  Her conclusion – that an Army-led Pakistan is less a rational security seeking state and more of an anti-status quo and obsessively anti-India state – merits serious consideration.

Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, by Robert Gates. A year removed from its release and the firestorm of politically-inspired crossfire, now is the time for a dispassionate read (or reread) of the man who served as Secretary of Defense for George W. Bush and Barack Obama.   Gates offers both an emotive case for overcoming pernicious bureaucratic inertia when a mass of America’s military men and women are in harm’s way and a welcome antidote to the leak-fueled books about White House decision-making published by Robert Woodward.  Read Gates first, then the books by Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta, to get a fully-informed feel for how the policy professionals in the Cabinet struggled to manage an unnecessarily contentious security making process during the first Obama Administration.

Al Mauroni:

Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy, by Barry Posen. In a relatively short read, Posen offers a sound discussion from national security strategy and future security concerns to a resulting U.S. defense resource allocation. He demonstrates that the alternative to the current proposed global U.S. hegemony is not isolation.

On Limited Nuclear War in the 21st Century, edited by Jeffrey Larson and Kerry Karchner. This book is a collection of 12 readings by noted defense analysts on the issue of how the United States might manage the risk of future nuclear war. While people may be uncomfortable with the idea, it’s much more probable in this second nuclear age that we might see a limited exchange and not the MAD strike that has been idealized during the Cold War.

David S. Maxwell (@DavidMaxwell161):

Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerrilla Warfare, Counter-Insurgency, Counter-Terrorism, 1940-1990, by Michael McClintock.  As we consider Unconventional Warfare, Political Warfare, and Counter-Unconventional Warfare in the 21st Century and look to operate in the strategic gap between peace and conflict or between diplomacy and war, this 1992 book looks at the U.S. experience in the Cold War and provides many lessons for consideration.

Armed with Expertise: The Militarization of American Social Research During the Cold War, by Joy Rhode.  The historical underpinnings for the study of Revolutions, Resistance, and Insurgency in the US military rested on the Special Operations Research Office (SORO) in the Studies on Assessing Revolutions and Insurgent Strategies or the ARIS Project.  Although the U.S. Army Special Operations Command in Partnership with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory have reprised these studies bringing them forward to the 21st Century there is no longer an intellectual center for the study of these phenomena.  Joy Rhode provides the best history of SORO and describes the “Gray Area” of Scholars, Soldiers, and National Security (the first chapter).  Perhaps the national security environment needs a new SORO along the lines of “A Center for the Study of Political Warfare and Resistance.”

George Kennan: An American Life, by John Lewis Gaddis.  If we are going to study Political Warfare, we should really study the father of Political Warfare, George Kennan, who famously wrote in his policy planning memo in 1948 that Political Warfare employed all means short of war to achieve national objectives and it is Clausewitz in peacetime. Although written more than 60 years ago at the start of the Cold War, I suggest that his views on Political Warfare have as much relevance today as then.

Bryan McGrath (@ConsWahoo):

The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made, by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas. A very interesting read about six men who shaped the 20th Century through their stewardship of American foreign policy.

Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow. A superb biography of my favorite Founding Father and America’s leading unsuccessful duelist.

Steven Metz (@Steven_Metz):

Restraint: A New Foundation For U.S. Grand Strategy, by Barry Posen.  While I don’t fully agree with Dr. Posen’s recommendations, the book provides a rigorous argument for a return to the type of grand strategy that the United States pursued before World War II, basically playing the role of “offshore balancer.” The U.S. military in this construct would be almost exclusively based on air, sea, and cyber power.

National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear, by David Rothkopf.  Rothkopf is a veteran journalist and CEO of the Foreign Policy Group.  His book dissects American strategy since 9/11 based on the notion that it has been primarily fear driven.  He argues that while George Bush made crucial mistakes soon after the attacks, he grew as a strategist and developed an effective national security team.  He finds Obama much more disappointing and feels that he has failed to develop an effective national security team or strategy.

Peter J. Munson (@PeterJMunson, who, of course, couldn’t limit himself to just a few books):

Boyd: A Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, by Robert Coram. More than anything, read something different. Successful leadership and strategic thought is an exercise in creativity. Creativity requires a greater constellation of concepts to link together. To that end, if you haven’t read the Boyd compendium, you must do so. It is all free here.

Creativity, Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, by Ed Catmull. Written by one of the founders of Pixar, pick up this book if you want to read about creativity, leadership, and perseverance. This is a man who first started thinking about computer animation when computers were the size of a room and stuck with his vision until it won 5 Academy Awards – which could only be done through visionary leadership and outstanding, introspective, and continuously adjusting organizational culture.

You also need to understand organizations, decision-making, and science and technology. Some recommendations in these areas include Driving Honda: Inside the World’s Most Innovative Car Company by Jeffrey RothfederThe Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas KuhnSeeing What Others Don’t by Gary KleinThinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, or any of the books by Daniel Pink or Chip and Dan Heath.

Finally, most importantly, you need to maintain a constant awareness of the stakes behind the nonsense of our institutions and commentary. Read Gods Go Begging by Alfredo Vea, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, or Helmand to the Himalayas: One Soldier’s Inspirational Journey by David Wiseman and Nick Harding. To get beyond the thought that we can only learn from military stories, read Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire. According to today’s conception of wildlands firefighting, the Mann Gulch tragedy was a fruitless battle fought for nothing. Maclean’s words are thus all the more haunting. “There’s a lot of tragedy in the universe that has missing parts and comes to no conclusion, including probably the tragedy that awaits you and me.” And in meeting that tragedy, “at the end beyond thought and beyond fear and beyond even self-compassion and divine bewilderment there remains some firm intention to continue doing forever and ever what we last hoped to do on earth.”

Douglas A. Ollivant (@DouglasOllivant):

The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising, by Patrick Cockburn.  Simply the best book published about Iraq this year.  Cockburn has the necessary eye for irony necessary to detail the nuanced, complex, multi-causal milieu that produced the Islamic State in Iraq.  A necessary corrective to many (more simplistic) popular narratives.

Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic, by Pierre Manent.  A masterful book by this eclectic French professor, the intellectual protégé of both Raymond Aron and Allan Bloom.  Manent details changing social understandings and political forms in the West, an important companion to those detailing changing political and social forms elsewhere in the world, while tracing their roots to their Greek, Christian, and Enlightenment sources.

Elton C. Parker III:

The Beginning of Infinity, by David Deutsch. A very thought-provoking and compelling work dealing with humanity’s insatiable quest for knowledge, and therefore belief in limitless progress.  It traces the history of this quest, showing that sometimes the “progress” has been akin to one step forward, two steps backward, and three steps sideways.  Although an apotheosis is not specifically mentioned, Deutsch does lead the reader to believe that since the human mind is on a quest destined for infinite knowledge, we are also on a glidepath of transformation toward perfection and true utopia.

Out of Control, by Zbigniew Brzezinski. I periodically go back and look at forecasters and predictors to see how well their visions fared.  In this case, I went back to read Zbig’s 1995 piece that attempted to foretell what the 21st Century was going to look like and be shaped by.  Now just shy of 20 years on, I think it’s worth the time to try and see the world through one of the biggest thinkers in Washington as the 20th Century drew to a close.  Since he was a product of some dark times, it is understandable when his extended thought piece touches on terms like “megadeath,” “organized insanity,” and “complete failures of totalitarian utopias.” He then postulates that for America (and the world) to survive the then-coming economic and moral crises, she needs to fundamentally alter her approach to overcoming deepening poverty, inadequate health care, a greedy wealthy class, and the media’s obsession with sex and violence.  On a larger international scale, he sees an increased role for the UN, and a “redistribution of responsibilities” within the trilateral nexus of Europe, America and East Asia. Doesn’t seem too far off, nor does it seem like such a prescription wouldn’t still be rather valid as we continue to operate without any sort of codified national grand strategy.

Stephen Rodriguez (@SteveRod78):

World Order, by Henry Kissinger. Simply because he is the elder statesman of our country and his perspective on balance of power politics should be closely considered.

Political Order and Political Decay, by Francis Fukuyama. This assessment of America’s systemic challenges is dark but is worth reading if only to make us take the situation we are in seriously.

Kori Schake:

Redeployment, by Phil Klay.  The best of a very good crop of literature from the wars, showing the many different ways veterans understand and react to a civilian society that often condescends to them, summed up brilliantly by one character asking: “You think the big bad war broke me,” I said, “and it made me an asshole.  That’s why you think I said those things.  But what if I’m just an asshole?”  Its poignancy should remind us all to get our arms around our nation’s veterans and weave them back into our social fabric.

Strategy: A History, by Lawrence Freedman.  A book with the searing insightfulness and boundless good humor of the man himself (who but Lawry would point out that the only winning strategy in the Hebrew Bible is to do as God directs?). Sections on the evolution of military strategy attempting to shield itself from political direction and the importance of subjugating military action into broader political objectives are essential reading for policy makers.  Especially interesting is his shift from military strategists to American business books as the modern frontier of strategic thinking.

Five Came Back, by Mark Harris. A cultural study of five Hollywood directors (John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens) who made World War II propaganda movies (the deal was complete creative freedom even in war zones) and how that experience changed their artistic visions.  The story of Ford skirting Navy censors to make the somber Battle of Midway (he got it screened for President Roosevelt before the bureaucracy could smother it) is a master’s course in the challenges of a reactive adversary.  A great book about way veterans’ experience colors their lives and the power of movies to shape a common historical experience.

The United States, Britain, and the Transatlantic Crisis, by James Ellison.  Serious archival history that conjures anew the severity of division among Western allies when it was not at all clear we were winning the Cold War.  That DeGaulle played a weak hand with such breathtaking and obdurate audacity is a marvel of strategy; seeing LBJ adopt a rope a dope game plan was an unexpected pleasure — the strong not giving the weak anything to react to.  Makes the case persuasively that DeGaulle’s challenge reinvigorated the special relationship by proving that despite Britain’s shrinking global role it was essential to America managing Europe.

MLR Smith:

Storm of Steel, by Ernst Junger. Memoirs of a young German officer in the trenches. His testament is devoid of any analysis of politics or strategy and concentrates on the individual soldier’s experience. Injured at least 14 times, it was a miracle he survived at all. Yet the book debunks the idea that the war was necessarily hell. You get the impression he rather enjoyed it all.

Goodbye to All That, by Robert Graves. Classic autobiography of the poet and author of I, Claudius, he is far more sanguine about his wartime experiences than Junger, but nonetheless, his evocative recollections vividly present the spirit of the times, recalling a great deal of camaraderie. It is evident that in spite of he and his fellow officers being injured, the only thing that mattered for them was not to avoid the war, but to get back to their units in the field as quickly as possible.

Mud, Blood and Poppycock, by Gordon Corrigan. Following the evolving historiography pioneered initially by John Terraine (The Smoke and the FireDouglas Haig: The Educated Soldier) that began to overthrow the erroneous myths of the war, Corrigan’s trenchantly written study concentrates on the British Army’s experience in World War I. Through assiduous research he demonstrates that the soldiers were overwhelmingly not badly led or poorly treated. Unlike the “useless war” advocates, he bases his arguments on evidence.

My paternal grandfather, an East Londoner from Stoke Newington, served consistently on the Western Front from 1915 to 1918 in the Machine Gun Corps (which had one of the lowest rates of survival of any of the field units). It was a miracle – like Junger – that he survived as well. He rarely spoke of his experiences afterwards and died in 1985. As I became more historically aware it began to annoy me that the vast complexity of the First World War was frequently filtered through easy, simplistic, narratives that the war was conducted by incompetents and was all a monumental waste of time, which to my mind diminished the memory of people like my grandfather. These three works do much to correct the record.

Daniel Steed (@TheSteed86):

Orde Wingate: Unconventional Warrior, From the 1920s to the Twenty-First Century, by Simon J. Anglim.  Simon has written a timely piece on a key figure in the practice or irregular warfare from those wearing the uniform of a regular soldier. Wingate’s exploits carry much insight into a twenty-first century context dominated by irregular warfare, the exploration of which by Anglim raises many troubling yet necessary questions about the practice of irregular warfare in contemporary conflicts.

Super Highway: Sea Power in the 21st Century, by Chris Parry. The author has written an exceedingly accessible, yet comprehensive work on the most neglected arena of strategic practice in this century, sea power. In an era that has been dominated by land-locked irregular conflicts, Parry has written a timely piece to remind all of the sheer importance, as well as the current fragility, of the maritime sphere. His insights into the current challenges facing UNCLOS, and therefore the global maritime order as we have known it, does much to remind all that the maritime sphere can no longer be taken for granted. An utterly essential read for those who wish to have a holistic and global view of strategy.

Mark Stout (@wwiphd):

Terror in the Balkans: German Armies and Partisan Warfare, by Ben Shepherd. I am only part-way through this book, so I don’t know yet how well it delivers, but it has a very interesting idea behind it. Shepherd is interested in explaining the behavior of the Wehrmacht officers who fought in Yugoslavia during World War II. He notes that a disproportionate number of them were actually Austrians who had fought in World War I in the Austro-Hungarian army. Accordingly, he looks at the experiences in World War I not only of German but also of Austro-Hungarian officers and then considers how those experiences later shaped their activities in Yugoslavia.

Secrets and Truths: Ethnography in the Archive of Romania’s Secret Police, by Katherine Verdery. This is a fascinating ethnography of the infamous Romanian Securitate written by an American anthropologist who did field work in Romania during the Cold War. She draws on a variety of sources, most notably her now declassified file, to describe who the Securitate’s officers were and how they saw their world and their work.

Stephen Tankel (@StephenTankel):

Deciphering Sun Tzu: How to Read the Art of War, by Derek M C Yuen. For those who know the Art of War’s aphorisms, but want to understand the text and the historical and cultural contexts that informed the text, Yuen’s book is a good place to begin.

National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear, by David Rothkopf. Because after a year in government, I’m a sucker for tales of interagency intrigue.

John Thorne:

Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy, by Francis Fukuyama. Volume II wraps up a mammoth analysis of how political institutions are created in modern times and can suffer from decay. Highly relevant and readable even if Volume I was skipped.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben Macintyre et al. A lively and fascinating history of a traitor.

Joshua W. Walker (@drjwalk):

Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival, by David Pilling. Hands down best book on Japan since John Dower’s masterful Embracing Defeat and my favorite book of 2014 given the masterful way in which the author takes the reader on a journey from the devastation rot from the 3/11 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters to the rise of Abenomics and the re-emergence of Japan. The deep historical insights, clever contemporary anecdotes, and precise analysis make this a must read for any would-be Asia hand and foreign policy wonk.

The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be, by Moises Naim. This manifesto on power is shockingly easy to read and comprehend. The insights on the decay, disruptions, and innovations of power over the centuries as it culminates in the modern international system makes this book reprinted in 2014 due to popular demand a worthy read whatever the occasion. Whether you are simply trying to understand the world around you or a grand strategist, End of Power is a great starting point that is an appropriate gift for almost anyone on your holiday list.

Ali Wyne (@Ali_Wyne):

The Crisis with Russia, by the Aspen Strategy Group. Wolfgang Ischinger, Kevin Rudd, Lilia Shevtsova, Angela Stent, Strobe Talbott, and other esteemed observers reflect on Russian revanchism and attempt to locate it within broader strategic currents.

The Next Great War? The Roots of World War I and the Risk of U.S.-China Conflict, edited by Richard N. Rosecrance and Steven E. Miller. The editors have assembled a series of penetrating meditations on the catastrophe that engulfed Europe a century ago as well as the merits and limitations of 2014 vs. 1914 analogizing.

The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security, by Bartholomew Sparrow. While Scowcroft has long been regarded as one of America’s leading strategic thinkers, he has not received the kind of attention that Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and George Shultz have garnered.


Photo credit: Alexandre Duret-Lutz